Public outrage was unlike any in modern times.
Many claimed it was un-American and it violated the soul of the nation.
That phrase, the soul of the nation, is more than intriguing in these dark days. It calls for self-examination and re-engagement with the responsibilities of citizenship.
What is the soul of America today when basic human rights are violated?
When compassion is mocked as being soft and truth itself is a refugee in search of safe harbor?
When some evangelical Christians stand behind a policy that takes babies from their mother’s breasts, puts children in cages, and incarcerates teenage boys in tent internment camps in the desert?
When the U.S. government refuses to reveal where the babies, little girls and female teens have been secreted away?
When a morally deficient president equates human beings to vermin who “infest” the country?
When an evangelical Christian attorney general quotes scripture to justify inhumane government policy as ordained by God?
We are in such a time. Toxic politics, nationalism, tribalism, misogyny, ignorance, racism, sexism, homophobia, isolationism, and perhaps most menacing of all, authoritarianism, are expressed openly putting our democracy in peril.
Trusted institutions are under attack. Truth is mugged daily. Compassion is mocked. The vulnerable are exploited and the rich get richer as the poor get left behind.
Re-considering the soul of the nation under these circumstances seems more than an urgent exercise. It seems a critical necessity, because the entire democratic experiment is on the line.
A few weeks before the family separation tragedy, I set out on a reading journey in an attempt to gain understanding of this thing called the American soul, perhaps to stave off my own depression.
One of the several books I read is John Meacham’s, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels.
Meacham writes that we’ve been through dark moments before and the character of the nation’s soul has been a check on our worst behavior and a challenge to live up to our ideals.
This is reassuring, but it also contains a pertinent caution. We often betray our ideals and wound our soul. Sometimes we take one step forward and two steps back.
In key moments, dark moments, we have reached deep, claimed higher values and sought healing through truth, justice and equality.
Courageous leaders often stepped up and behaved in ways that led us through. He cites Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, LBJ and Martin Luther King, among others.
Knowing this history reminds us of the character required to take on tough problems and it recalls the values that have undergirded struggles for justice in the past.
Knowing how we’ve overcome our past challenges doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the problems we face today but it points us to key touchstones.
For example, Meacham writes that Teddy Roosevelt shared a dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. But at a time when people in the West were afraid of being overrun and outworked by Chinese, Roosevelt rose above the fears and defined an America that was more inclusive and egalitarian.
“Americanism is a question of spirit, conviction, and purpose, not of creed or birthplace,” Roosevelt said.
In declarations like this we begin to discover the meaning of “soul.” It’s what distinguishes the U.S. from other countries, Meacham says.
It is a nation founded on ideals, not on race, birthplace or tribal lineage.
“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose,” he writes.
And our purpose is captured in key words and phrases: “All men (sic) are created equal,” “government by the consent of the governed,” “give me liberty or give me death.”
These are not mere clever formulations. They mean something.
Even when they are dishonored and betrayed, they are a call to our better angels, a pinprick of conscience imploring us to embody the values embedded in this soul message we tell ourselves.
Meacham does not soft pedal how native peoples were treated from the very beginning, nor the inhumanity and immorality of slavery.
He documents those times when we have denied our better angels: the selfishness, exploitation and greed that led to the Great Depression; the Civil War, and the racism that found new life in Reconstruction and the Lost Cause; the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II; displacement of Native people; denying women the vote; and the horrors inflicted by the Klan and other racists.
Progress comes slowly, he says. “Reform is slow work, and it is for neither the faint-hearted nor the impatient.”
But it happens. It happens because good people make it happen.
And in these days, remembering that the people embody the soul of the nation makes citizenship a serious responsibility that we often overlook.
Meacham says “progress does not usually begin at the top and among the few, but from the bottom and among the many.”
There is hope in this claim. If we the people hold fast to the ideals of the soul story, we can make change happen.
Even cynical leaders wear out their welcome Meacham says. He recounts the infamous McCarthy era.
McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who also trained a young Donald Trump, said, “Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs—and especially a holder of high office—cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy.”
“The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause,” Cohn is reported to have said.
Meacham says grasping our past is orienting. It’s also encouraging.
If we remind ourselves that we’ve walked the path in dark shadows before and emerged into the light, we can do so again.
What drove me to reflect on this is my work experiences covering global humanitarian issues over the past 30 years.
I learned early in this work that the facade of what we call civilization is very thin and under adverse circumstances it can crack and fall.
Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger, Cuba, Kampuchea all taught me that we humans have the capacity to do unspeakable evil to one another, or to give assent to others and allow them to do great harm.
If we forget our own humanity and do not hold fast to ideals of human dignity and justice, evil things can happen.
Thus, I have never believed in the dictum, “It won’t happen here.” It could.
The soul of the nation is only as strong at the commitment of the people to hear and embody the truth of Lincoln’s words, spoken at another dark hour in our history, and to live so that they become true.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
First Inaugural Address, 1864